When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was “Dudley DoRight,” probably because he was a Mountie–which was almost a cowboy in my young eyes–and rode a horse. The villain was called Snidely Whiplash, and I loved his name. It always made me laugh (and still does).
Snidely twirled his black mustache and leered from my television screen. He was always kidnapping Dudley’s love, Sweet Penelope, and tying her to train tracks and giant buzz saws in the best tradition of the old action serials.
But although Snidely has enough vivid character tags to stick in my memory, he remains a simple cartoon villain. He has no depth, no complexity, not even a motivation for why he is so evil.
He’s not just a villain. He’s a bad one. In other words, his design is so flat and thin he could never work in prose fiction. Especially today.
Often, new writers are bombarded with plenty of advice on character design. They do their best to juggle personality traits and external tags. They try to remember character goals. They worry with physical appearance, and sometimes become stymied over the right name. There are so many elements and details to pull together, and all while trying to wedge the character into a plotline.
I constantly chivvy my students with reminders of how an antagonist must bring conflict to the story, how an antagonist must oppose the protagonist.
With all of that to handle, is it any wonder that inexperienced writers often construct a tissue-thin villain performing wicked deeds?
If you are writing conflict between your protagonist and a villain, and the scene or story feels lifeless and difficult, or if you are plotting your story events but you can’t seem to bring the bad guy to life, consider these tips:
Look at what’s behind the villain’s goal:
Let’s say that your villain plans to steal the story McGuffin–secret plans for a new super rocket.
Uh, because the hero has designed them for the Right Cause and if the villain steals them the hero will be in trouble.
Is that all you’ve got?
Because that’s a cartoon motivation behind a flat villain.
Let’s reconsider what drives this villain. Let’s dig into his past, or invent a past for him. Let’s raise the personal stakes because even villains need emotional reasons for the actions they take.
Make the villain’s goal personal:
Okay, Vic Villain wants those secret plans because …
1) he can sell them for a lot of money.
2) he wants to mess with Harvey Hero because he can.
3) years ago, he was Harvey’s roommate in engineering school and they worked together on the prototype. Now Harvey’s getting all the credit and Vic wants a piece of the action.
4) all of the above.
Let personal stakes spark emotions:
If Vic thinks he was done wrong by his ex-roomie, then he’s going to be harboring years of resentment.
Maybe he’s watched Harvey’s career zoom to dazzling heights. Maybe he’s nursed a grudge all this time, blaming Harvey for his failures instead of himself.
(Okay, yes, I hear those of you who are clamoring with the question: what happened between Vic and Harvey? How come Harvey has the plans and Vic’s out in the cold?)
Good question, and one you shouldn’t answer for readers until the middle or near the end of your story.
Determine why the villain will strike now:
Sure, you want Vic taking action from the opening scene of your story, but if he and Harvey go back years … why has Vic waited until now in your story to act?
You need a catalyst, something that changes the circumstances for both Harvey and Vic.
For this example, let’s say that years ago Vic abandoned the project as impossible and walked away from it at a critical point. Maybe Harvey pleaded with him to have faith and keep trying, but Vic saw a better opportunity and ditched the partnership.
Now, all these years later, Harvey has finally solved the final glitch and created the super rocket. He’s making a billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon. It’s in the news. He’s nominated for a major science prize.
Reading this in the newspaper at breakfast, Vic looks at his messy pile of unpaid bills, the dirty dishes in the sink, and his dead-end job. Something snaps inside him. He forgets that it was his decision to quit, and he shifts his sense of inner guilt to blaming Harvey for his troubles.
He makes the decision to take revenge on Harvey by stealing the plans and selling them to a higher bidder.
Build your bad guy from this foundation:
Vic isn’t a fabulous character construction yet, but he’s more filled in than before. Now it’s time to layer on more complexity.
Create complexity in a character through contrasts:
If Vic is the story’s villain, what are his good qualities? Is he ever nice? To whom? Why?
Take the time to think about your villain as an entire person.
What are some of Vic’s positive accomplishments?
Has Vic ever helped anyone?
Who does Vic care about?
Does he love his mother, his wife, his child, his pet canary?
In the classic noir film This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd plays a stone-cold killer who assassinates people for money. Yet while he’s a loner, impassive, wily, and ruthless, he likes cats. He buys milk and leaves a saucer on the open windowsill of his cheap rented room for the stray cat that comes by. He considers cats to be “his luck.” Slowly his backstory unfolds, and the audience learns that he was an orphan raised by a cruel aunt who physically and verbally abused him. From that, it’s evident why he can’t befriend people and why he can only show kindness to cats, perhaps the only creatures that have ever shown any affection to him.
If you can create Vic Villain into a multi-layered individual of contrasts, understandable motivations, emotions, and the capacity to do the right thing, then when he decides to do the wrong thing that makes him so much more villainous than if he’s portrayed as a cartoon figure or a sociopath.